Leading Ladies: Tonya Chapman

by Ryan Miller

By Barrett Baker

Tonya Chapman
City of Portsmouth Chief of Police

Growing up in Arlington, Va., Tonya Chapman knew she wanted to be a police officer from a very young age. But she was told that because she was a female, it wasn’t a profession she should consider. So, she changed her aspirations to an equally noble profession—education. However, after graduating from college, she was tasked with teaching Marketing Education to high school students and found that her heart just wasn’t in it. So, she went back to pursue her dream of joining the police force and has enjoyed every minute since.

She rose quickly in the ranks with the Arlington Police Department, becoming a sergeant in six years and captain by her 13th year. She was the first female African American captain to reach that rank with the department. She spent a total of 22 years with the Arlington police, then went to Richmond as deputy chief of police. She was moved to director for the department of social services after two years, then was appointed deputy secretary for public safety and homeland security by Governor McAuliffe. Then her dream opportunity opened in Portsmouth, and she went for it. She is now the first black female chief of police in a municipality within the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“My aspiration was always to become chief of police,” Chapman says. “Being a female in a male-dominated profession has been challenging, but gaining respect early in my career helped me be successful. But, the best advice I can give other women is be bold, take chances, don’t be afraid to fail. I have. It’s what you do the next day in times of adversity that defines your character. So, step out on faith. Don’t be complacent where you are. Take that chance, have confidence in your abilities, and always be prepared. You never know who is watching, and you never know who may influence your career or whose career you can influence. So, be the best and always maintain that competitive advantage.”

Originally inspired by a female police officer who lived across the street from her as a child, Chapman is quick to assume a role-model position so others may find their inspiration. “I’ve broken a lot of glass ceilings along the way,” Chapman states with pride. “So, I’ve always believed in mentoring and bringing others along, especially females and minorities. Being the first black female captain in Arlington, I started a group called Building Bonds. It was a peer group to build success in the agency, to build a successor once I left, to help promote and mentor one another, get others in a position to take promotional exams or take other job responsibilities they would normally not have taken. As chief of police here, I’m asked to participate in various activities to mentor others, to speak at different events and to have one-on-one conversations with others to talk about what it took for me to get here. So, I’ve always believed in mentoring, and I’ve done that throughout my career, just always trying to be that positive role model.”

Portsmouth Chief of Police Tonya Chapman, Leading LadiesPhoto by Jim Pile

In addition to being chief of police for the City of Portsmouth, Chapman is also the president of the Hampton Roads Chief of Police Association, a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Incorporated, and The Links, Incorporated, and she’s also an advocate of volunteering and helping in the community through various public service organizations.

What’s next for Chapman? “Finishing my Ph.D. is next. But as far as career wise, I am pleased being the chief of police. I truly am,” she says. “As long as I feel as though I’m needed and a resource to the city and the citizens, I’m fine where I am right now.”

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